Legislation proposed earlier this month in the U.S. Senate could provide a boost to Michigan’s nascent advanced wood products industry.
The bill, dubbed the Timber Innovation Act of 2017, calls for an increase in federal spending on research and development for “innovative wood products.” Specifically, the legislation supports continued efforts to develop wood buildings that reach taller than 85 feet and are constructed primarily from high-tech timber products.
In introducing the bill earlier this month, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said supporting the advanced wood products industry could create jobs across Michigan and the U.S. and increase the availability of an environmentally friendly building material.
“Currently, construction in the U.S. doesn’t use wood as the main building material, particularly in buildings more than three stories,” Stabenow told MiBiz. “But we know we can use wood in taller buildings, (which) will create more jobs for us while also improving the environment by encouraging private landowners to plant and maintain forests on their property.”
Roughly 30,000 people work in jobs in the state’s $18 billion forestry industry, according to Stabenow.
Beyond supporting additional research and development, the legislation would codify funding for the U.S. Tall Wood Building Contest, an annual competition hosted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The bill also would establish funding for a wood innovation grant program to be given to “one or more eligible entities each year for advancing the use of innovative wood products.”
It remains unclear how much funding the legislation could appropriate to support the research and design of advanced wood products.
Industry groups, including the Michigan Forest Biomaterials Institute, back passage of the legislation. The institute spun off from Michigan Technological University and is comprised of a variety of stakeholders in industry, academia and the public sector who are interested in growing the state’s forestry industry.
“We’re a research state and we would certainly benefit from more funding in wood products,” said Mark Rudnicki, executive director of the Michigan Forest Biomaterials Institute and a professor at Michigan Tech. “This could really restart our development of products based on wood.”
As interest grows in constructing tall wood buildings, the industry still lacks an actual structure to prove out the concept, he said. So far, Rudnicki has engaged in initial talks with Michigan Tech on the prospect of constructing its new health center building from wood. Stakeholders at Michigan State University also participated in preliminary discussions to determine if a tall wood building could be constructed on its campus.
To date, only one tall wood building — a seven-story structure in Minnesota — has been built in the U.S. over the last five years, according to data collected by reThink Wood, an advocacy group promoting wood construction materials. An eight-story wood building in Portland, Ore. is expected to be completed this year.
The majority of tall wood building development has occurred outside the U.S. in countries such as France, Canada, and Norway, according to reThink Wood.
Beyond the development of tall wood buildings, Rudnicki sees potential markets for a variety of products derived from wood. Specifically, he points to Michigan’s forestry industry supporting a growing rank of biorefineries, which produce chemicals derived from wood and other biomass for use in plastics and other materials. The concept of biochemicals is growing outside the U.S., particularly in Canada, he said.
Overall, Rudnicki views the advanced wood products industry as a key economic development tool for rural areas of the state that often are rich in forests but lack other resources that would encourage companies to locate there.
“I think (the wood products industry) is important for developing rural jobs, connecting those rural areas to the rest of Michigan,” he said. “They have this saying out west, playing on the idea of farm to table. They call it ‘forest to framing,’ as in the frame of a building.”
Similar legislation last year failed to pass, but Stabenow said its failure had nothing to do with opposition from other lawmakers. Instead, it stagnated because of a lack of focus on the forest products industry in general, she said.
If the bill meets a similar fate this year, Stabenow plans to incorporate it into the 2018 Farm Bill, which, as the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture committee, she will help draft.
“I think there are very innovative things going on with furniture makers and other industries,” Stabenow said of the work being done in the wood products industry. “We want to really recognize that we need to focus on innovation on the use of wood in a variety of different ways.”
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the Michigan Forest Biomaterials Institute spun out of Michigan State University and Michigan Technological University. The Institute was formed out of Michigan Technological University alone.